Opera in the Heights double bill offers modern twists from Rice composers

A new leader emerges, and his ridiculous behavior only makes his followers more fanatically devoted to him. A climate change activist gives a TED talk warning of the grim fate awaiting the world, but no one believes her.

While the stories sound like they could be ripped from today’s headlines, they’re actually the plots of two operas – “Kassandra” and “The Leader” – which will be performed at Houston’s Opera in the Heights Feb. 23 and 28.

Anthony Brandt outside the Opera in the Heights venue. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

Anthony Brandt outside the Opera in the Heights venue. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

Rice University Shepherd School of Music professors of composition Anthony Brandt and Karim Al-Zand were commissioned by Opera in the Heights to write the chamber opera double bill. It is a co-production with Musiqa, the music group Brandt and Al-Zand co-founded with several other colleagues that is now in its 18th season.

Brandt’s production, “Kassandra,” is based on ancient Greek mythology. The god Apollo tries but fails to seduce the Trojan princess Cassandra, and he responds to her rejection with a curse: she will know the future, but no one will believe her. In this modern retelling, Kassandra is a computer scientist studying climate change and Apollo is a venture capitalist who offers to support her work. Rice graduate student Chris Besch will play the role of Apollo in the production.

Brandt said he and librettist Neena Beber were inspired by the myth for several reasons.

“First, it is a #MeToo story from early in Western culture, and Apollo’s cruel bargain continues to resonate,” Brandt said. “Second, thanks to advances in computing such as Big Data and neural networks, this is the first time in history that humans can make the type of long-term predictions that the myth describes, and this is especially true about climate change.”

The opera opens with a TED talk, in which Kassandra describes her research.

“By updating the Cassandra myth to modern times, we hope to ask the question: Is anyone listening to her?” Brandt said.

Al-Zand’s production, “The Leader,” is based on Eugène Ionesco’s one-act play. It is both a comic opera and a political satire that hints at present-day events with the story of five characters anticipating the arrival of their leader and obsessively following his outrageous behavior. Rice alum Mark Diamond ’14 will perform the lead role of “The Announcer” in the performances.

From left: Jesús Vassallo, Karim Al-Zand. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

From left: Jesús Vassallo, Karim Al-Zand. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

The play’s wacky intensity and unique brand of comedy inspired Al-Zand to use it as the basis for his opera.

“The humor is broad enough to be infectious, but is also disarming in a way that allows the story’s deeper relevance to really sink in,” he said.

The productions will take place in a re-conditioned church with a stage, but the space has none of the backstage and offstage areas or flies found in a traditional opera house. So Brandt and Al-Zand needed sets that could never leave the stage, but work for two very different operas. They brought in Jesús Vassallo, the Gus Wortham Assistant Professor of Architecture at Rice, to design the unique sets. His solution was to design double-sided, modular pieces that could be easily re-configured from scene to scene and flip from opera to opera.

“When I heard Karim and Tony talk about the double bill at an event at the Moody Center, I immediately thought that it posed a very challenging design problem, which is precisely why I decided to take it on,” Vassallo said. “Opera as a genre is as close as we can get today to the idea of a total work of art, and therefore irresistible for a designer.”

Al-Zand said one of the advantages of opera as an art form is the flexibility to tell many different kinds of stories, such as the tales told in “Kassandra” and “The Leader.”

“Opera’s appeal is similar to cinema in a way, though the action is even more real, happening right in front of us,” he said. “And modern opera can respond directly and immediately to events in the world around us, so its appeal goes beyond its music. It is it written by composers who live in the same world as its audience, and its stories grapple with the same predicaments and day to day concerns that we all face.”

Opera in the Heights double bill

Chamber opera is a more intimate version of opera, Brandt said, with fewer performers and instruments, a lower budget, and pacing that is closer to real-time. Though there are few examples of chamber operas in the traditional repertoire, he said it has grown more common in recent decades.

“As dynamic and beautiful as grand opera is, I do think chamber opera has the potential to attract new generations of listeners — especially when the topics are relevant to today’s world,” Brandt said. “We hope everyone will come out to see ‘Kassandra’ and ‘The Leader.'”

Brandt and Al-Zand’s work was supported by The Scholarly and Creative Works Subvention Fund, which fosters the production of scholarly and creative works that enhance the reputation and quality of scholarship across the university. The fund is made possible by Rice’s Office of Research, in partnership with the schools of architecture, humanities and music. The commissions were also supported by an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Houston Arts Alliance.

For information about the productions or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.operaintheheights.org/

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.